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The fight for Habana Outpost

Restaurateur and new New Orleanian Sean Meenan hopes to turn an abandoned  gas station on North Rampart into a Latin American-themed restaurant.

Sean Meenan seeks to turn an abandoned gas station on North Rampart Street into a Latin American-themed restaurant.

New Orleans, as I’ve come to learn over and over again, is a city of passion. And, whether you’ve lived here your entire life or only a few months, the passion consumes you. It’s how you know you belong – you become passionate about everything from love and culture to food and football.

There is a down side to passion, however. Well, maybe not so much a down side as an opposite side to the powdered-sugar-covered-Saints-fleur-de-lis-loving warm and tingly feeling inside of each of us. It’s the element that makes us want to fight at all costs to preserve this city, whether it involves railing against an NFL commissioner or Mother Nature, or even against one another over life-altering topics like food trucks and go-cups.

In true New Orleans fashion, the city is witnessing another altercation over status quo versus change – one that this time involves Cuban sandwiches and solar panels.

At the center of the controversy is Sean Meenan, a New Orleans resident who is seeking approval of a proposed restaurant, Habana Outpost, at the corner of Esplanade Avenue and North Rampart Street. The native New Yorker owns several properties in the city, including the abandoned gas station in question in the Habana Outpost matter.

For more than 12 months, Meenan's plans for Habana Outpost have been undergoing revisions by the Vieux Carré Commission over architectural and aesthetic issues, ranging from exterior color choices to visible rooftop solar panels that don’t comply with the historical neighborhood’s guidelines. Meenan says that he has agreed to each action recommended by the VCC, making revisions that comply with its guidelines, and adds that the suggestions have shaped a better plan for his restaurant.

Nevertheless, many residents of the neighborhood are protesting impending approval of the restaurant, with everything from lawsuit threats to the commission to “No Outpost” and “Save our Neighborhood” signs on their cast-iron banisters.

The proposed restaurant will be reviewed by the full Vieux Carré Commission on Wednesday, having gained approval to move forward by the Architectural Review Committee last Tuesday afternoon. At the meeting, it was decided that all the solar panels would be removed from the final design, and Meenan offered to sign a binding agreement drafted by his lawyer stating that the existing billboard attached to the property will be used only to advertise local non-profit organizations.

If approved, the restaurant could bring benefits to the area, in particular giving purpose to a property that has been abandoned for several decades. However, Meenan’s ultimate goal, and more philosophical approach, he maintains, is to create a dining establishment that brings together people from the community.

Prior to moving to New Orleans, Meenan gained success with his New York-based restaurant brand, Café Habana, which was envisioned as a way to create a communal experience in the diverse, developing NoLita neighborhood in the late 1990s. Since opening his first Latin American-inspired diner at Prince and Elizabeth streets, Meenan has opened establishments in Brooklyn’s Barklay's Center, Malibu and Dubai.

In 2005, Meenan opened Brooklyn’s Habana Outpost, New York’s first fully solar-powered restaurant. The eatery focuses on bringing together people from the Ft. Greene, Bedstuy, Clinton Hill, and Crown Heights neighborhoods by offering Saturday morning events for families; its menu features the same dishes that brought Café Habana to fame. The communal aspect of Habana Outpost inspired Meenan’s non-profit organization Habana Works, which offers weekend programming for children and parents, a neighborhood design program for architecture students, and initiatives that work to green the area with community gardens. Meenan helped seed other entrepreneurial efforts as an initial investor in the popular website Etsy and an emerging cashmere company called Elder Statesman.

Both physically and emotionally, Meenan now considers himself a New Orleanian. He purchased a home in the French Quarter long before making plans to open the second Habana Outpost location that has become such a hot topic in New Orleans. He has enrolled his young son in an Uptown school and says that he is committed to staying here with his family. He talks about the city with passion and conviction.

“The reason I’m in New Orleans is to raise my son,” said Meenan. “His mother and I feel that there is no better place to raise a child, and nothing more important in the world to do than raise our child. Once we agreed on that, it was New Orleans or bust.”

The city also fulfilled his vision of community.

“New Orleans is authentically and distinctly its own place,” he said. “Within the United States and within the entire world, there is only one New Orleans. And part of what makes New Orleans so unique and so rich is its culture and people.”

New Orleans, Meenan adds, gives his son the opportunity to be whomever he wants to be – brainiac, athlete, artsy type. He appreciates that it is large enough to give his son the big city experience, but small enough to keep him grounded.

“On a personal level, I love New Orleans for those same reasons for myself as well,” Meenan said. “It plays as a big city in the way that it has top caliber culture, professional teams, all kinds of offerings for things to do at night, and it’s the first place that I know of that has this kind of fusion culture. I love to learn about cities and how they became what they are, and there is always something new to learn about New Orleans.”

That has certainly been true in Meenan's quest to open his French Quarter restaurant. But the veteran restaurateur says he has no plans for giving up, and even adds that the convoluted process of approval has shaped a better design for his project and a better understanding of his new city.

“I am not mad at the process at all,” said Meenan. “While democracy can be messy, the VCC has treated me well and given me professional opinions. The architectural committee has helped me make the project better.”

While Meenan has been patient with the process, he contends that there have been several misconceptions about his proposed restaurant. For one thing, Habana Outpost will not be an entertainment complex, but rather a Latin American-inspired dining establishment focused on bringing together members from the community.

Meenan currently owns three properties at the corner of Esplanade and Rampart, which may have given residents the idea that his establishment is a complex. The original properties that were purchased are 1040 Esplanade Ave. and 1310 N. Rampart St. (the vacant gas station), which were intended to be used for the restaurant’s kitchen and seating. At the request of residents on Esplanade Avenue, Meenan purchased a third building on North Rampart Street adjacent to the gas station to be used primarily as the kitchen. The property on Esplanade Avenue will now be used as gallery space and a residence.

As with the Brooklyn location, Meenan says, the  Habana Outpost in New Orleans is intended as a community gathering place, offering fairly priced food and Saturday morning events for children. The Brooklyn location has an annual block party and movie nights, but no events have been proposed so far for New Orleans. The restaurant will be open no later than midnight, Meenan says.

Parking concerns also have been voiced by area residents. Parking isn't within the VCC’s guidelines, but Meenan says that he has been in negotiations with parking lots within the restaurant’s two-block radius to contract out additional parking for Habana Outpost customers, although leases won’t be signed unless the proposal is approved.

The two most challenging issues that have been difficult to negotiate have been the project’s proposed rooftop solar panels, which Meenan has agreed not to use, and an attached billboard, which he has offered to relegate to non-profits.

“The removal of the solar panels is unfortunate,” said Alex Miller, an urban planner and resident of New Orleans. “Preserving the culture in New Orleans for the long term will require some adaptation.”

Meenan is going into next week’s VCC meeting with confidence that approvals will be made so he can move forward with construction. Ultimately, however, this fight isn’t about just Cuban sandwiches. It's about entrepreneurship and business opportunity and willingness to change.

“It’s important that we continue to see developers want to work in New Orleans,” Miller said. “The Habana Outpost project is an amazing asset for the neighborhood that will employ young people from the area and teach children about the environment, while creating a dining establishment that brings the community together. If the project doesn’t get approved, it will only set a bad precedent.”

The new plans for Habana Outpost will be reviewed at the next Vieux Carré Commission hearing, which is set for Wednesday, September 4 at 1:30 p.m. in City Council Chambers at City Hall; it is open to the public.